the oxidation state, sometimes referred to as oxidation number, describes the degree of oxidation (loss of electrons) of an atom in a chemical compound. conceptually, the oxidation state, which may be positive, negative or zero, is the hypothetical charge that an atom would have if all bonds to atoms of different elements were 100% ionic, with no covalent component. this is never exactly true for real bonds.
the term oxidation was first used by antoine lavoisier to signify reaction of a substance with oxygen. much later, it was realized that the substance, upon being oxidized, loses electrons, and the meaning was extended to include other reactions in which electrons are lost, regardless of whether oxygen was involved.
oxidation states are typically represented by integers which may be positive, zero, or negative. in some cases, the average oxidation state of an element is a fraction, such as 8/3 for iron in magnetite (fe
4). the highest known oxidation state is reported to be +9 in the tetroxoiridium(ix) cation (iro+
4). it is predicted that even a +10 oxidation state may be achievable by platinum in the tetroxoplatinum(x) cation (pto2+
4). the lowest oxidation state is −5, as for boron in al3bc.
the increase in oxidation state of an atom, through a chemical reaction, is known as an oxidation; a decrease in oxidation state is known as a reduction. such reactions involve the formal transfer of electrons: a net gain in electrons being a reduction, and a net loss of electrons being an oxidation. for pure elements, the oxidation state is zero.
the oxidation state of an atom does not represent the "real" charge on that atom, or any other actual atomic property. this is particularly true of high oxidation states, where the ionization energy required to produce a multiply positive ion is far greater than the energies available in chemical reactions. additionally, oxidation states of atoms in a given compound may vary depending on the choice of electronegativity scale used in their calculation. thus, the oxidation state of an atom in a compound is purely a formalism. it is nevertheless important in understanding the nomenclature conventions of inorganic compounds. also, a number of observations pertaining to chemical reactions may be explained at a basic level in terms of oxidation states.
in inorganic nomenclature, the oxidation state is represented by a roman numeral placed after the element name inside a parenthesis or as a superscript after the element symbol.